In the Polish Aftermath
In a public debate over a controversial new Holocaust film, Poland faces up to a complicated past
On a snowy Sunday in March, dozens of parka-clad Poles trickled in between the pews of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. They removed their coats and greeted each other with kisses. Upstairs, the women’s section remained empty, as downstairs people quickly outnumbered the modest group of men who usually occupy these seats on Friday nights. Only some of the visitors were Jewish, and none were there to pray. They had come to watch a panel about a film that had come out six months before.
Pokłosie, or “Aftermath,” has been drawing intense criticism from Polish nationalists, who accuse the film of being “anti-Polish” propaganda and a gross manipulation of historical truth. Over the past few months, Pokłosie has so riled the Polish right wing that it has been banned from some local cinemas, while its leading actor, Maciej Stuhr, has received death threats. There is no righteous Gentile savior at the center of its plot, no shadowy scenes of reenacted horror, no survival against all odds or triumph of the human spirit. In fact, there are no scenes of the war at all, and not a single Jewish character. The film is strikingly devoid of the tropes of Holocaust cinema. Indeed, while the film is squarely about Polish-Jewish relations and the destruction of Poland’s Jewry during World War II, there are no carefully reconstructed flashbacks to when Jews were still around. But that is precisely the source of its unexpected power.
Pokłosie, originally titled Kaddish, was written and directed by Władysław Pasikowski, who is best known for making action movies and TV thrillers and who co-wrote the script for Andrej Wajda’s internationally acclaimed 2007 film Katyn. Pasikowski is little known outside of Poland, where Pokłosie premiered at the Warsaw Film Festival in October. The film takes place in the 2000s and tells the story of Franciszek Kalina, a Polish man living in the United States who begrudgingly returns to his backward hometown in the contemporary rural Polish countryside where his brother, Jozef, maintains their family farm. Though nothing has changed in this quaint village of farmers and babushkas, Jozef has. His wife has left him, and Jozef has been drawing the ire of his neighbors through his new-found fascination with the village’s former Jewish inhabitants, whose disappearances remain an unspeakable subject. Jozef spends his nights wresting old Jewish tombstones—long ago stripped from the old Jewish cemetery and used as paving stones (a common practice in Poland both during and after the war)—from the sidewalks and squares around town and then firmly planting them into a new Jewish cemetery he’s created in one of his wheat fields. He painstakingly restores each tombstone, the Hebrew inscriptions of which he’s taught himself to read.
At first, Franciszek is puzzled by his brother’s fascination, but then it takes hold of him, too. Together, Franciszek and Jozef exhume everything from land records to bodies, and they soon discover that the stories the villagers have been telling—about Nazi genocide and Jews intent on returning to reclaim their lands—are lies.
Long before Pokłosie was released, the Polish press documented the various obstacles Pasikowski had in the decade-long process of making his film, from securing financing for his controversial script to struggling with how to best approach what is, for many Poles, still a largely taboo subject. Though Pasikowski is notorious for ignoring interview requests, it was widely reported that he was inspired to write the film after reading Jan Gross’ Neighbors, a historical account of how the entire Jewish community of Jedwabne was murdered on July 10, 1941 not by the Nazis, as was once asserted by official Polish history, but by their Polish neighbors.
When Gross’ book was first published in 2001, it created enormous controversy in Poland, where Communist revisionism not only rewrote the Holocaust’s role in Poland’s national narrative, but also reinforced the Poles’ perception of themselves as absolute victims. Many Poles point to the fact that, unlike most European nations, Poland never officially collaborated with the Nazis, never ran their camps or established Polish SS groups. As a result of this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was destroyed. For that reason, Auschwitz has long been considered a site not of Jewish suffering, but of Polish suffering—even though half of the country’s death toll included 90 percent of its Jewish population.
After almost six decades of repressed memory, it was Gross’ book that finally got Poland talking. While right-wing, ultra-Catholic nationalists accused Gross of anti-Polish slander, Neighbors inspired among many Poles, including Pasikowski, a new curiosity in Polish Jewish history and its more disagreeable truth. “The changes are dramatic from when Neighbors came out,” Gross told me from his office at Princeton University, where he is a professor of history. “The big difference over the last 10 years is that all the fantastic research on the Holocaust is now being done in Poland.”
Neighbors not only ruptured the Polish silence regarding things Jewish, but it also challenged the widely accepted taxonomy first proposed by the historian of Shoah fame, Raul Hilberg, who claimed that everyone during World War II fit neatly into one of three categories: victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. If the Poles were victims, how could they also be bystanders, at best, or perpetrators, at worst?
“I think a lot of [Polish] self-complacency is a result of this triparte division coming from Hilberg, which is so contentious,” Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in Polish-Jewish relations, told me. “These categories are inappropriate for what was really going on in Poland. It wasn’t so black and white, but quite gray. This moment with Neighbors made people realize that we needed a new language to talk about the war.”
Though the movie was inspired by Neighbors, it is not an adaptation of the book, nor a reconstruction of historical events, a fact that is often lost on the film’s dissenters, who include Tomasz Terlikowski, the editor of Fronda.pl, a right-wing nationalist website. Terlikowski, who also participated in the Nozyk Synagogue debate, maintained that the film’s greatest problem was that it was “historically inaccurate,” a statement that elicited disagreeable sighs from the audience.
The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years